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02 July 2020

Alex Cuffe in conversation with Briony Galligan

 

Image 01: Alex Cuffe, 'Algae Sweat', algae, pocari sweat, water, glass, wood, air pump, light, 2012.
Image 02: Alex Cuffe, 'Uncanny Selfie', 2020.

In response to the impacts of the current COVID-19 crisis on our community, KINGS Artist-Run and un Projects are collaborating with Bus Projects, TCB Art Inc. and SEVENTH to profile a range of artistic projects that have been impacted by the temporary closure of their physical spaces. By collaborating with these organisations to publish interviews, artist previews and texts, we seek to maintain the important dialogue generated by their rich programs and projects. Now as much as ever, artistic and cultural discourse is vital in keeping us connected and engaged.


TCB Art Inc. collective member Briony Galligan went for a walk around Princes Park with exhibiting artist Alex Cuffe in early May 2020. Alex’s exhibition was put on hold in March this year. Her show Love is the Length of Her Hair' reopens 2 July (until 19 July) 2020 at TCB Art Inc, 1-5 Wilkinson St Brunswick.

The interview took place on Wurundjeri Country. Briony and Alex pay respects to Wurundjeri and First Nation Elders, past, present and emerging. Sovereignty over these lands was never ceded.

Sounds of walking and crunchy gravel

Briony
What did you do with all the objects that we took from the show?
Alex
They’re still in my car, they’ll probably stay there for a few days, a few weeks, I dunno. Um ... I don’t know what it means to take them from my car. There’s no room at my house. My car is like an extension of my cluttered psyche. There’s one object that’s irreplaceable — that’s the wedding ring that was cut off my finger.
Briony
What’s the wedding ring object?
Alex
Do you know the story?
Briony
No. Or, partly … I didn’t know it was part of the show. Do you want to tell me about it?
Alex
Well it was my engagement ring from my ex, from when I lived in Helsinki, and it got cut off my finger, when I went to Mumbai for surgery. I wore it for sentiment, thinking it was a symbolic gesture of undying love or something. I got swelling from the flight and it just literally wouldn’t come off, they used these medical lubricants and it just wouldn’t budge. So, they cut it off. I thought it was kind of amazing. I dunno … I think the ring was cursed and so it had to come off like that. I guess it was an intervention to let go of something I was holding onto, you know?
Briony
So, you were awake when they did it?
Alex
Yeah.
Briony
Was it dangerous?
Alex
Well they had a little device, it was like this cute tiny saw thing with a hook. A medical ring cutter, I suppose.
Briony
So that’s the object?
Alex
Yes, that’s the irreplaceable one. But then I guess, if I lost it or my car got stolen, I wouldn’t be burdened by this object anymore. Like what do you do with a broken wedding ring? Maybe that's why it’s in the show ...
Briony
When we were taking some of the objects out, I noticed that there was a rack with some t-shirts on it. There was a finger plastered to the wall, some kind of diffuser, and then you brought more things in, and there were more t-shirts.
Alex
Well you got to choose a t-shirt. I misprinted some and I’ve been giving them away as gifts. Sort of a prelude to the show.

There was also a face cloth that I had from surgery. The cloth had ‘Reliance’ written on it, from the hospital. When I woke up from surgery the lights were so bright, and I asked them to turn the lights down and they couldn’t, so I asked for a cloth to cover my face. It was a really horrible time. And I just had that cloth for like a month, over my face, saving me. And I was just thinking about these burdened objects with all this emotional weight to them.

Briony
Like the cloth of Veronica and how Jesus wiped his sweaty face on her veil and then it appeared with representations of his face. The sweaty cloth becomes a representation of a body.

Your show was due to open a week before the statewide COVID-19 lockdowns, when people were making their own decisions about what was safe before that legal lockdown. The week before you, TCB and Alex (Hobba) decided to close the gallery. You thought that the timing to show your airborne work would be really misread. Do you want to talk a bit about that? Can you describe what the airborne work is?

Alex
Well one of the main works is a hormone dispersed into the air via a humidifier … no, what do you call it, a scented oil diffuser. Yes, so, it’s the hormone oxytocin, which is the love hormone also known as the attachment hormone. It’s what the body uses to emotionally bond with other humans. I was going to disperse it into the gallery …

Child’s voice walking past: ‘Can I hold her?’

... and I was quite worried about how that work changes when you think about an airborne viral disease. Like it’s a bit similar. The 'airborne-ness' of it and talking about love. But at the time it didn’t feel very sensitive to the pandemic context.

Briony
Also, you’ve been working on many parts of the show for many years. But I think with the pandemic, because it’s been so quick, there’s been a push of ‘respond to the pandemic’, ‘what do artists want to say about the pandemic?’ ‘what websites and digital works can be made…’ There’s been this rush to produce. When most things, and most art, is really slow.
Alex
I have several thoughts. One came from memes that came out. Like trying to think about how long until an academic queer analysis of isolation is published. And it took like a week. But I think you raise a good point about the timespan of the work. Like with the oxytocin work, that spanned three or four years and has been a very gentle work to think about, like I made it with and about that same ex. And then for it to so aggressively change due to the context was so dis-regulating. And then we’re faced with this ethical, moral question to respond to in this really radical time. But then there’s grief and loss in what you once had in a show that’s about grief and loss and losing what you once had. Like, it feels so fitting to me.

Sound of person jogging past

Briony
It’s a show where you’re looking at grief and loss and particularly your own grief and loss. Do you feel grief that the show hasn’t happened?
Alex
Relief. I feel relief that it hasn’t happened. I had just started my post graduate studies in psychotherapy, with my first assignments starting to come in, and then the pandemic hit. It was very intense. But in my heart, I knew the show wasn’t going to happen then. Or that it would only be open for a week. Little did we know how aggressive it was going to be. So, I was sort of relieved that it didn’t get any kind of release. We are our own protagonist in our lives, but it’s difficult to centre yourself when this is such a large experience that everyone’s having and all so differently. The truth is, our stories are important and I try to hold space for that. But I thought it was an appropriate moment to have a show and for it not to come into intuition. Into …
Briony
Fruition?
Alex
Fruition
Briony
I think so too. It was a really shit couple of weeks, but I think it was good that the decision came from you and Alex (Hobba) and the Board, rather than from the ‘law’. It was through discussion of what’s safe and not safe and the risks.
Alex
Yeah, the risk mitigation was quite overwhelming. The idea that a single person could get sick from seeing that show was mortifying. And then what we know of the proliferation of how dangerous a single case can be.
Briony
I’ve been thinking about how with the pandemic other concerns can fall away, but many of those concerns are more important or even more present. For example, certain things in isolation have changed, we might be confined with family, or considering different ways that swe treat illness and infection socially, and how that’s changed historically. So you might be thinking: why would this show or art happen now? And it’s because it’s important now.
Alex
What’s important?
Briony
Like in your work, thinking through what sadness is individually and collectively. Or thinking through how trauma or happiness operates personally. They don’t become irrelevant because of COVID-19.
Alex
Yeah, they become more relevant. I don’t know how you feel about it but in my mind, art is way less relevant for me right now. I’m studying something else. It’s not an anchor for me in my life. My value as a person isn't based on practicing anymore. But it’s weird for me because now I think art has to more readily communicate something ‘meaningful’. That art has to speak to that existential feeling that we are having right now, maybe? My work is born out of four or five years of transitioning, of isolation and illness. Some of the work is around getting sick and going into an infectious diseases ward and being medically isolated and being in hospital. And of living overseas for a year in a very isolating and transphobic country. All these ideas are born out of a long period in this experience that is now more universal. For me though, the art is personally less important. At the same time, this show probably won’t change because of the pandemic. If anything, hopefully, the pandemic creates more sensitivity within the work.

I mean, I want to communicate empathically in my practice. That’s my newborn desire to start practicing again, to create space for empathy. We can all relate very viscerally to experiences of isolation, loneliness, depression, love. I mean, even the title of the show Love is the length of her hair is recontextualised with people shaving their heads or growing hair out in isolation. It seems hopeful as we are meeting now and seeing restrictions ease, but we’re still kind of inside something. And it’s hard to know what it is to make work right now. But there’s some sense of being grateful for that also.

Briony
I don’t know how you’d align it, but it seems that you have made a lot of decisions about your art practice and the form of your art practice has changed with your transition.

I think about your early work made in residency at Cemeti, Yogyakarta, when you were using Pocari Sweat to grow algae. That’s the drink when you’ve been sweaty or dehydrated, hot and doing exercise, that drink restores your body balance. That work seemed to me about playing with connection between human bodies and the algae and the potential of it as an ecosystem. In the airborne love work, the objects are no longer contained as an experiment to encounter. Rather than making connections through different life forms, they have become a way of forming connections between people.

Alex
That’s humbling.
Briony
I loved that work.
Alex
Thank you. Me too. I think that’s one of my favourite works. Pocari Sweat, I heard, was something that doctors would prescribe to patients with things like malaria. I was thinking about this almost mystical property of hydration. And I was thinking about care and misdirected care. And caring for another organism in a mistaken way. It was quite a cruel work in a way, cohabiting an organism with something else that was harmful and trying to get the algae to survive with the right ratios of Pocari Sweat. It was difficult. I’d kill it and it would be really smelly and gross. Whereas this work now is much softer in its approach. And it’s about the body or everyone’s bodies.
Briony
But now also, it’s about human bodies.
Alex
It’s quite relational in that way. It’s quite unethical, or it’s about the ethical impact of a hormone on the body.
Briony
You are also going to include some signage.
Alex
Yes, it requires disclosure, it requires consent. Which, for me, is a new idea from trans healthcare. Of informed consent to obtain hormones. I accessed hormones by seeing a psych and getting a diagnosis, which centres the doctor’s ability to pathologize my identity, right? But shortly after I obtained my 'diagnosis', informed consent became a new model … we de-centralised the psychologist as expert over our bodies and moved to a more autonomous, informed model. And so, it’s using that practice of informed consent — you choose to partake in the work knowing there is some risk. The hormone oxytocin is not recommended for people that are breastfeeding and people that are pregnant and minors. I mean it has an impact on everyone, there was a study saying taking synthetic oxytocin can increase a sense of trust in strangers by around twenty percent. The quantity is ‘nominal’ perhaps, but I’m not a doctor or an expert. So, it’s a pretty morally complex work for me. I thought I’d put it out there and let people decide how to engage with it.
Briony
I’m also thinking about that time, that absence you had away from making art. Well, not making art, but showing, exhibiting art.
Alex
I stopped making. Well, I switched to making music.
Briony
Well, with the photos on the t-shirts, those forty photos, were those photos you were taking when you weren’t making?
Alex
Well it was really intentional taking those photos. I think it’s quite difficult to stop being an artist. It’s such a psychological profile, an identity. You don’t just stop after ten years. It was this very gentle process of not practicing art, but of practicing grief. Like I was allowing myself to take a photo, without stopping the feeling. It so quickly passes and we normalise or regulate without holding space or committing the feeling to memory. And it’s kind of nice to remember each moment of grief of the last five years of transitioning. Of not practicing your discipline actively.
Briony
Was it about drawing attention to grief? I think practice is about love. Was it about loving grief? Or was it about remembering what it was like to be inside of grief and wanting to hold onto it? I’m interested in what the impulse was to take the photo.
Alex
Well, I feel sort of mortified when people see the shirts. When I first made that work years ago, it was about reminding myself that I was real, or that grief is real, and I guess it’s just a document of that. But I think it’s really transformed now years later. It's more an anthology of grief. When you print so many onto t-shirts it starts to perform this different function of centreing that grief. The intention to take a photo, and then the wearing of it brings together two incongruent ideas. It challenges that intent of privacy by making it wearable by the audience. I’m still digesting the work and what it means. It’s scary and very brutal.
Briony
It’s brutal. And very confronting in a very powerful and unusual way.

Incessant tram dinging

Briony
I was also thinking about serial objects, and how I found it confronting when you asked me to pick one. There’s a mini-consumer me that thinks: which one is the most beautiful? Which has the nicest colours? Which one would I wear? Then I check myself. It’s a really gross feeling where you are challenged, because you are thinking about moments as interchangeable and you address the images then as something to buy or wear. There’s forty-three and all the images are different, but they are all very glamourous and beautiful and intoxicating. But then I think about them as something you’ve made, and about holding or touching or being some sort of keeper of this object, and I think about that moment for you and our friendship. It’s very confronting to think about them as objects.
Alex
Well, I’m just giving the misprinted medium sizes away as gifts to people who've shared something meaningful with me. It’s a soft version of the work as a gift. The work at TCB is a little bit different. In the exhibition I’m asking you to browse a clothes rack and to quantify and capitalise, I want you to purchase my grief. But with the gift, there’s much more care, or a sharing, a connection and mutual consent.
Briony
Sharing, but also the responsibility of it. I think it’s a responsibility for empathy, or care. That seems heightened. It feels like a weighty object, not something to lose.
Alex
Well in psychotherapy one of the core principles is Carl Rogers’ theory about empathy or empathetic understanding, which asks a therapist to feel 'with' a client. I guess there’s something similar in this work. It’s asking the participant to wear the grief. It’s not just an image, it’s an image to be worn. It’s a very direct metaphor: if you wear it, how you wear it. All those different relationships to grief.
Briony
A gift is also something where you can’t know if you give something, it’s very hard to know what you’ve given. A gift is something someone receives but isn’t necessarily known by the giver. It’s like what you get from a friendship or being with people, particular things that they aren’t conscious of.

All profits from the exhibition 'Love is the Length of Her Hair' will be donated to families affected by Indigenous deaths in custody in so-called Australia.

Love is the Length of Her Hair. Love through trauma, through grief, through loss.
Love as an object. Love as a chiemical, love as a memory. Love as absence.
Love through capital.